‘Work search questions’ to get FL unemployment benefits lead to confusion, stress, and no payments

City of Hialeah employees hand out unemployment applications last month to people in their vehicles in front of the John F. Kennedy Library in Hialeah, Florida. The city is distributing the printed unemployment forms to residents as people continue to have issues with access to the state of Florida’s unemployment website in the midst of widespread layoffs due to businesses closing during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Confusion and obstacles blocking unemployment payments to jobless Floridians continued to mount Thursday, as two Florida senators explained that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “waiver” of work-search requirements has been rolled back — unbeknownst to many applicants.

The waiver may have conflicted with federal law, State Sen. Randolph Bracy said in a conference call Thursday.

“The work-search requirement is part of claiming of the weeks (to be able to get benefits). You really can’t get by without answering that question … even though it was waived by the governor,” said Bracy, a Democrat who represents part of Orange County.

Normally, applicants receiving unemployment benefits must attest that they are looking for work and report where they have applied.

Bracy said Jon Satter, who heads Florida’s unemployment system, told him that federal requirements did not allow the state to waive that requirement, even in this economic crisis.

However, DeSantis announced such a waiver through May 30, since there were no jobs to be found during the stay-at-home lockdown.

The work-search requirement was quietly reinstated starting May 10, causing confusion for jobless workers trying to get benefits under contradictory instructions.

Sen. Linda Stewart, a Democrat from Orlando, said it was her understanding that Florida was out of compliance with federal rules but was granted a two-week grace period to reinstate the work-search requirement.

She said state leaders should have made the change widely known instead of leaving many applicants at risk of forfeiting their benefits. She and Bracy noted that many applicants were unable to access the unemployment system online and were forced to apply for benefits on paper, making it difficult to monitor the status of their claims.

In the same video conference, Stewart said the unemployment system has insufficient staff to help applicants perfect their claims, though DEO announced it was adding 6,000 customer-service representatives.

Stewart said those call-center staffers offer only general information and don’t have the necessary access to applicant files to amend and complete claims.

“We know they’re eligible for the money,” Stewart said of applicants whose claims were incomplete or were rejected. “They (DEO) just need to start issuing the checks.”

Meanwhile, Stewart wrote a letter late Thursday demanding details about a data breach at the Department of Economic Opportunity that DEO acknowledged to reporters Thursday.

Stewart questioned why the breach had not been publicly disclosed or made known to her. DEO did not explain when the breach occurred or how many people were affected but said it is offering personal identity protection services to potential victims.

“This information was not shared with me from you or DEO, nor was it posted to DEO’s website, begging the question of transparency and a possible breach of duty to disclose to the people whose personal information was entrusted to your care,” Stewart wrote, addressing Satter.

“Given the agency’s track record with processing unemployment applications, I’m sure you will understand the great concern I have that all remedies have been quickly taken and that Floridians can be assured that their personal information is now secured and will be protected from future attacks,” Stewart said.